Why Write?

Posted on October 24, 2015

Why write at all? Why not just take the best thoughts of others (and they are better than mine), and put them to work in the world of practice with young people? Is it not hubris to think that my particular arrangement of words has anything to add? Especially when the world is drowning in words that add nothing except more confusion, more surface thinking, more self-satisfied thinking.

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Work, Money and Faith…or “Why you should consider giving me money”

Posted on October 12, 2015

I need money for my life. Most of us do, in the absence of a fully functioning bartering system which, though I would love it, is someone else’s vocation. My family and I generally get by financially. We work, and I get paid for my regular job with Praxis. Also, the government chips in with family payments. My extended family is often generous and I do some casual teaching when it’s needed.

Most of you, dear readers, also need money. You get this somehow. However, I would bargain that most of you don’t need to justify your work theologically to get it. You do the work, or apply for the required amount of jobs, and the money goes into your bank account and quickly out again.

Later in this post I am going to ask you for money. This post is my tortuous explanation. If being asked for money is OK with you, read this to find out why I am asking you. If it offends you…well, maybe you should still read it.

What is ‘raising support’?

I started theologising for my supper when I worked for YFC Australia as a youth research officer. I had to ‘raise support’, which meant asking friends, family and other people to donate money to cover my wage. This filled me with apprehension. Though I had worked for a church before, where my wage was donated by church members, I never had to ask for the money directly. This was different.

I wrote a letter which explained my role with YFC and asked directly for cold hard cash. It wasn’t easy. I also made phone calls to people I knew, asking them for money. This was even harder. These days I am more comfortable about asking people for money, but not much more.

These days, about half of my wage is still covered by individuals who give both large and small amounts. This money creates time. Time for me to do Christian community work in Long Gully. And after all this time, these supporters still think what Kylie and I do in Long Gully is worthwhile enough to support financially. This experience is humbling, and I often doubt that what I’m doing is worth their support, but they don’t (and for a picture of what Kylie and I do in Long Gully, you can sign up for my newsletter).

Tent-making as an alternative

There’s a long tradition in Christianity, and probably in all religions, of giving money to cover the costs of causes we believe in, and paying people to do this. To put it in common parlance, it’s a voluntary and personal version of the tax system, which is compulsory and impersonal. Some Christians traditions make such donations mandatory, using a ‘theology of the tithe’ to justify this. I’m not a fan of making it mandatory, but I am a fan of giving a portion of your income to causes that need it. I can hear you saying “He would say that wouldn’t he?!”, and it’s true I have a vested interest. So let me bash you with a (little) Bible.

The apostle Paul, had something to say about this. He funded his work through making tents, which became the shorthand for doing paying work to fund other stuff you think is important but which doesn’t pay easily (‘tent-making’). That he didn’t ask people for donations was a source of pride, and there a is convincing argument that Paul valued his tent-making on the same level as his apostolic work. Yet he also didn’t begrudge others getting paid for their apostolic work, even though he did not choose this path himself. See 1 Corinthians 9 for his lengthiest treatment of this topic.

What is ‘Christian work’?

So, while I am theologically OK with the idea of people giving money to cover my wage, I think it has a major danger. That is: when we donate money to ‘Christian work’ we create a class of people who are ‘Christian workers’.

These are usually pastors, thinkers, missionaries of various kinds, community workers, theologians, and stuff that generally doesn’t fit the priorities of our society and so doesn’t receive funding from the state. I believe in the necessity of this work (again, I would say that wouldn’t I?!), but their work is not more important or more urgent than any other Christian’s work, whether that be paid or unpaid.

In effect, all work done by Christians is ‘Christian work’. Of course, we can critique that work and ask Is this work like Jesus? but that can and should be applied to any Christian’s work. It should be applied as much to a pastor’s parenting as to his work of teaching the Bible.

I resolve this dilemma by ignoring it mainly. But when I look squarely at it, I live with it by making sure that I encourage Christians (and anyone really) in their work when I see that it reflects the life of Jesus. Their work is as significant as mine.

As well as people who give us money, there are a bunch of people who wholeheartedly support us through praying for us, telling others good stuff about what we do and checking in on us – this kind of support gives me courage that money can’t buy…so I try to keep that in my mind.

Give me money anyhow

Given how conflicted I am about this, you’d be surprised that anyone gives me money at all. And that is actually a problem for me right now. I’m not that good at ‘raising support’! I’m in the position of needing to look for other paying work (‘tent-making’) in order to create time for what I do in Long Gully, which will obviously decrease the time I have for things in Long Gully.

So, if you’d like to financially support what Kylie and I do in Long Gully and Bendigo, you can donate through Give Now, and sign up for a newsletter here. We would appreciate it immensely.


It took me a while to write those last two paragraphs. Hopefully this blog post explains why.

Playing viola for the cause

Posted on September 30, 2015

My local public secondary school happened to be a specialist music school. New students could sign up to learn an instrument from one of the teachers; for no cost. Of course, every Year 7 wanted to learn the saxophone, of which the school had about five. About 50 of my peers signed up for saxophone. The saxophone teacher herded us into a room and told us the bad news; the good news being that our parents could buy a saxophone for a cool $800. My parents didn’t see the good news.

Mum dragged her grant-aunt’s viola from the cupboard, and marched me to the office of Geoff Conrau, string teacher extraordinaire (Geoff is also an amazing magician, and a pyrotechnician). I was not happy about being relegated from saxophone wailing glory. Bloody hell, it wasn’t even a violin! But Geoff is a skilled teacher, and I came to love the humble viola, along with its own tradition of viola jokes.

The viola, compared to the violin, warms the heart with its timbre, which is quite close to the human voice in pitch and tone. The slightly larger and fuller body of the viola gives it a fuller sound and its C-string is a joy to play. Composers like Dvorak, Mozart and Britten were all viola players, like the Australia composer/player Brett Dean and John Cale of the Velvet Underground.

As a half-decent viola player, I played in lots of orchestra and string ensembles over my high school years. Over time, the viola affected my personality, and I’ve reflected on this many times as I became involved in various movements and organisations (youth, Christian, political). The viola is now a symbol of how I operate in movements and organisations.

The viola supports others

The viola, particularly in a string ensemble, sits (literally often) between the violin and the cello. It provides the ‘centre’ to the music, the middle fiddle, without which the cellos succumb to growls and the violins to screechiness. When it stops playing, you realise it was there.

I’m not saying that I naturally support others, but playing the viola taught me the essential part of the supporter. In churches, community groups and movements, the charismatic leader gets the glory, but without those who play other parts, they’d sound hollow.

It’s nice to be anonymous sometimes

For the out and out extravert, anonymity would be a curse, but the viola has shown me the joys of anonymity. In an orchestra, a viola has a chance to shine, but much of the time it is providing atmosphere and (as above) the ‘centre’ of the music. The viola player is not ‘on’ all the time. We are even, mercifully, obscured between violins and cellos, and behind the conductor.

In contrast, the violinist is always on – as an observer, it felt like they could never relax. They are often carrying the melody and the bulk of the sound. I could sit back sometimes and scrape back and forth on the one string while the violins exercised their tortuous brilliance.

Put me in a community, church or movement, and I love to have my voice heard (see below) as much as the next person and feel that sense of belonging that comes with recognition. But I also love to sit back and watch someone else rise up to take the lead.

Yuri Bashmet - Viola Legend

Yuri Bashmet – Viola Legend

It has its own beautiful voice; just listen

The viola’s sound is deeply affecting but, to the untrained ear unused to picking its sound, is often unheard or ignored. Because its pitch is moderate, it does not stand out among the powerful cellos and piercing violins. You need to listen to a viola solo, and then its voice shines through when listening in an ensemble, and you wonder how you missed it.

Here is the Guardian newspaper singing its praises:

The viola is the plangent heart of the string section. A modest instrument, it tends to cede glamour and virtuosity to the showier violin and cello. But that is deceptive: in a string quartet, the viola holds the music’s centre, often moving it through the most complex of harmonies, or expressing its most melancholy moods.The viola is the plangent heart of the string section. A modest instrument, it tends to cede glamour and virtuosity to the showier violin and cello.

This definitely applies to me, particularly early on as I worked out my distinctive voice, and realised it wasn’t overpowering and didn’t shout ‘look at me’ like the cello. The viola has helped me to look out for the voice of others whose pitch and tone don’t seem suited to the podium.

Work with what you’re given

The last lesson I want to talk about is: working with what you’ve been given. I mean this in a leadership or membership sense. I didn’t like the idea of learning an instrument whose very existence I doubted. But it grew on me, and as I spent time with it, I grew to love it.

The models of community leadership and membership that we have are pretty impoverished. When you look at the theory of leadership, there are many models, but when we see those that are lauded and applauded…well, it’s pretty clear that the ideal is charismatic, extraverted and articulate. So it’s easy to feel inadequate. When you do, just remember the viola.

The mosque: Bendigonian political action options

Posted on September 28, 2015

Over the past couple of years, there has been a low-level debate over a planning permit for a mosque in Bendigo, which in recent times culminated in a protest cum street battle between the United Patriots Front, and No Room for Racism/Socialist Alternative. For ease of writing, let’s call the United Patriots Front ‘the UPF’ and those on the other side, ‘the Miscellaneous Groups Against UPF’ or MGAUPF. (This article in The Australian is the best summary I’ve read.)

The UPF plans another rally on October 10, and the MGAUPF plans to be there (for example, the Bendigo Action Coalition).

For concerned Bendigonians who want to stand for freedom of religion and against the targeting of Muslim people, what are the forms of political action that are available?

Option 1: Join the MGAUPF

The MGAUPF believes that allowing the UPF to hold their rallies unopposed allows the UPF to claim that their cause has local support in Bendigo, which in turn strengthens their hand in recruiting people to their nefarious cause. These are outcomes that the MGAUPF cannot abide. I think the MGAUPF’s argument has some weight; the UPF is an extreme organisation, whose tactics inevitably breed prejudice against Muslims, even while they claim that they are technically not ‘racist’ because ‘Islam is not a race’. We must let them know that their views are abhorrent.

However, while singing wildly different lyrics, both the UPF and the MGAUPF carry the same tune when it comes to political action. It’s all about bonding. In social capital language: you can bond with people who are like you; and you can build bridges to those who are different. The UPF and MGAUPF act in order to bond more strongly, and have little interest in bridging unless the other converts first.

Why? It would seem that the most effective way to counter extremism would be to persuade an extremist to come over to the side of light. However, both the UPF and MGAUPF is convinced that the members of the other group are incorrigible, and that they are engaged in a battle against an evil enemy. That’s not to say that they would turn away recruits, but that persuading their opponents, which would include understanding them, is not a motivator.

What is the motivator then? Bonding has the purpose of strengthening the group by narrowing the ‘radius of trust’. Group strength has positive outcomes for group members, such as a feeling of safety, knowledge that needs will be met and external threats vanquished. I think both the UPF and the MGAUPF are primarily motivated by the need to be part of such a strong group. There is nothing wrong with this, but bonding becomes unhealthy when groups are exclusionary. Could a member of the UPF turn up to a meeting of the MGAUPF and not be denigrated? 1


The outcome of exclusionary bonding is perpetual battle. Staging a counter rally will strengthen the UPF’s sense of group strength, leading them to hold more rallies; the MGAUPF will feel morally strong in their opposition, and feel more equipped to oppose the UPF yet again. While I think that the UPF’s agenda must be opposed, counter rallies are not the only way.2

Option 2: Go positive

While perpetual battle strengthens tribes like the UPF and MGAUPF, it is poison to neighbourhoods. For neighbourhoods to thrive, the ‘radius of trust’ has to be widened, not narrowed. People must bridge the gap to their neighbour who is different to them. Bendigo is basically a ‘neighbourhood of neighbourhoods’; perpetual battle is anathema to its long-term health as a diverse community3.

I am interested in this point because I am writing this piece as a member of the Bendigo neighbourhood. I want that neighbourhood to thrive into the future, and a constant stream of pitched street protests will eventually force neighbours to choose sides between the UPF and MGAUPF. Not because they have to, but because that’s simply how it seems.

This fact, of being a neighbourhood member, is behind the ‘Believe in Bendigo’ campaign. This option involves emphasising values of diversity, inclusivity etc. ‘Go positive’ political action consists of events like festivals and picnics which embody the kind of community you desire. Going positive tells the UPF, by implication, that their denigration of Muslims is not welcome in Bendigo.

The sharp reader may have perceived a downside of ‘go positive’ political action; it is also a bonding activity. Though it bonds through proactive connection rather than outright opposition, ‘going positive’ has little potential for bridging. However, I reckon it has a little more chance than the MGAUPF.

Another downside of ‘going positive’ is the effort it takes to pull off. The events need to be large, diverse and fun – that is quite hard to do. What if ignoring the UPF (which is essentially what this strategy does) does not work? The UPF may simply take the lack of explicit opposition as permission to keep using Bendigo as a base for their national campaign against Muslims. Will those who want to ‘go positive’ keep holding large community events for as long as the UPF hangs around?

Is there another way?

So, where things stand now: joining the MGAUPF is fine for an outsider but difficult for a member of the Bendigo neighbourhood, and may have the effect of emboldening the UPF. Going positive is more attractive for a neighbourhood, and less divisive, but is exhausting as an ongoing form of action.

Is there a way of getting the UPF to go away, and its sympathy in Bendigo to dry up? But which also makes Bendigo a healthier neighbourhood through bridging?


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The Sacred Roots of Youth Work

Posted on September 15, 2015

Hi all – I am currently writing a chapter on spirituality and youth work for a book which is coming out next year sometime. I’ll put a few excerpts from my chapter up as I go. Some of relates to the work I do with the Praxis Network. There’s a bunch of academic references which don’t have hyperlinks…too much bother – sorry about that 🙂


There are plenty of good reasons to remain in conversation with youth work’s past, none so pressing as the need to avoid the mistreatment of children and young people, often in the pursuit of the young person’s ‘best interest’. For example, the child migration policies championed by Thomas Barnardo which dislocated so many young people from culture and family.


Closer to home, there have been two recent inquiries into the abuse of children and young people within institutions such as churches, schools, associations, clubs and government organisations: these have continually revealed lax standards of care, ignorance of the needs of young people, abuse of whistle-blowers and inadequate implementation of policy designed to protect young people.[2] Add to this the growing awareness of the trauma of the ‘Stolen Generation’ and there is ample reason, simply to avoid abuse, for continuing honest historical conversation. In addition, we find unconscious ‘frames of mind’ in some sacred-shaped youth work of the past, that we would wise to avoid. A focus on the ‘rescue’ of young people from poverty was rife, as was an evasion of the structural causes of injustice.


More positively, history functions as inspiration and sage through practices and personalities that, though bound by time, nonetheless contain gems of practice wisdom and thinking for which we are poorer in our ignorance.


As we noted, Praxis students desire to integrate their passionately held the sacred with youth work practice. Such integration was a historical reality in the early days of youth work. Though there were non-sacred antecedents to youth work, like the Youth Communist League, most had explicitly Christian inspiration. In fact, Clyne argues that youth work can only be truly understood if this history is accepted and its influence tracked:

The surviving Christian virtues of hope, emancipation, beneficence and justice within the youth work discourse give sufficient space to suggest that youth work’s foundational Christian language still infuses the discourse. The ‘ghost of the divine’ continues to shape the youth work story. (Clyne, 2015, p. 23)


The sacred roots of youth work are well documented, particularly in relation to Christianity: we will look at two examples of historical practice that translated into modern youth work, as well as three youth work pioneers.

a. Practice: Ragged Schools

In the wake of the industrial revolution, as rural-urban migration increased, youth work pioneers responded to the social misery of the cities through Ragged Schools. Mostly lay evangelical[3] activists gathered children and young people off the streets, to protect them from harm and to educate them.


The ragged schools planted the seed of ‘informal education’ that drives much of modern youth work, particularly in the UK. The youth worker gathers groups of young people who need assistance and empowerment and works with them in a coach-like manner. Mark Smith says:

Historically, youth work did not develop to simply ‘keep people off the streets’, or to provide amusement. As we have seen, a lot of the early clubs grew out of Sunday schools and ragged schools…This interest in learning – often of the most informal kind – was augmented by a concern for the general welfare of young people.


b. Practice: Associations

Associations aimed to instill Christian character and disciplines in young people. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), begun by George Williams, aimed to help young adult Christians stand fast against the temptations of the metropolis. Another association was the Children’s Special Service Mission (CSSM) that spawned Scripture Union, a parachurch movement[4], which spread quickly across the globe with its method of daily Bible readings and camps. Of the surviving associations, some have kept their Christian identity though diversified its expression (e.g. Scripture Union). Others, like the YMCA, have lost their identity as a self-consciously Christian organisation.


The legacy of the associations lies in their specific targeting of young people as a demographic category, and using social connections as the ‘glue’ with which to pursue their aims. Such ‘relational’ youth work with young people is widespread now (Rodd & Stuart, 2009). Though the form these took (eg. bible study etc) is anachronistic within modern youth work, at the time this was a genuine innovation. (eg Josiah Speirs). Less positively in the view of radical youth work was the a strong tendency to ‘drift’ to the middle-class.


c. Pioneers: Thomas Barnardo

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution, Thomas Barnardo trod the grimy streets of England when the post-war welfare system was a sparkle in the eyes of social democrats. There was no safety net to whom citizens could subcontract neighbourly love. People in need were helped by their neighbours or they were not. Although a grim situation, it produced some remarkable people, of which Barnardo was one. Preparing to be a missionary to China, he gained a scholarship from the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA) to study in London, where he faced the poverty of children on the streets. He decided to make England his focus. He was a controversial figure, lauded for his rescues of street children from a life of hard labour and destitution, but later pilloried for his advocacy of child migration.


His legacy to modern youth work can be seen in the foster care system. Barnardo recognised that homeless young people should be cared for, not in institutions, but in families or places that approximated families. In addition, he could provide some useful lessons for organisations struggling with the current funding cutbacks for youth work, as he was a philanthropic activist.

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